Water and land-use agreement

Kittitas County Commissioners Gary Berndt, Obie O'Brien and Paul Jewell gather to sign recently approved land-use and water agreements at the Kittitas County Courthouse on Thursday. (Brian Myrick / Daily Record)

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Kittitas County commissioners celebrated what they said was a new era of cooperative problem solving on Thursday.

Commissioners came together for a ceremony to sign agreements, contracts and ordinances aimed to bring county government into line with state land-use and groundwater requirements.

The agreements meet orders from the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board and the state Supreme Court involving the county’s rural land-use zoning and rural development rules. New county rules better protect the rural character of county lands.

The state also called on the county to show how it is protecting water resources in quality and quantity in the Yakima River basin.

The documents signed Thursday reflect the county’s effort to end an eight-year cycle of litigation and public meetings, said Commissioner Obie O’Brien, adding ending the cycle was a campaign issue.

Commissioner Gary Berndt said dealing with the complexity of rural land-use planning and groundwater concerns has been “an incredible journey.”

The county is ending past litigious practices, he said.

New leaf

Commissioner Paul Jewell said current commissioners inherited the unsolved land-use and water problems from past county government actions, and the agreements should end “an extremely tumultuous time.”

“(To solve these problems) we started working together and tried to find a mutual solution that is best for all citizens,” Jewell said.

The settlement agreement with Futurewise, the Kittitas County Conservation and Upper County’s Ridge group, along with the state Department of Ecology, Jewell said, will bring predictability and more certainty to rural county residents wanting to have a rural home and use a groundwater well.

He said the county’s water-right leasing and water-banking plans are in the works to bring an element of affordability to seeking a new well and deal with “monopolistic issues” in water banking in the county.

Jewell said the settlement agreement was reached to assist Kittitas County and not be a model for the rest of the Yakima basin. There was a lot of opposition from forces outside the county to not reach a settlement, he said but commissioners needed to address the needs of county residents and property owners first.

Jewell thanked a long list of county, state and private entities that played an important role in assisting the county in reaching the settlement agreement.

He said without the continuing support of the state Department of Ecology, the groundwater agreement wouldn’t have been reached.

Jewell said his fellow commissioners put in a “ton of work” with him on the settlement and had courage to reach a creative resolution.

“It would have been easier to just go along in the same pattern,” Jewell said.

There’s much more work to do to implement the groundwater settlement and apply the new rural land-use rules, and there’s going to be more problems to deal with, Jewell warned.

“I believe we are doing the right thing,” Jewell said.

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